In the past year and a half, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on a hell of a roller coaster ride. Armed with young, hot coach Jason Kidd and an incredibly young, but talented roster, they took everyone by surprise and were a straight-up good team, heading into the All-Star Break seven games over .500 with a stingy 99.3 defensive rating. Then Kidd, armed with executive power for the first time, traded point guard Brandon Knight in the middle of a career year for Michael Carter-Williams. The Bucks limped to the finish line and bowed out meekly in the playoffs. Nevertheless, they had obvious talent to build around and the future looked bright.
The offseason was even more encouraging, with the Bucks beating out bigger-market teams for coveted free agent center Greg Monroe, who they signed to a three-year, $51-million contract. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Carter-Williams providing length on defense along the perimeter, Monroe’s low-post offense would tie the team together, and his poor defense would be compensated for — or so the thinking went.
Instead, Monroe’s defense has been even worse than advertised, Carter-Williams remains the limited offensive player and unfocused defensive player he’s been since he’s entered the league, and the offense hasn’t improved. Part of the defensive regression — and lack of offensive improvement — also rested with Jabari Parker, who had only played 25 games of his rookie season before tearing his ACL. He was inefficient offensively and a complete liability on defense. It’s been a frustrating sophomore campaign for Kidd and company.
Now, all of a sudden, the Bucks are on another upswing, one that only confirms just how much potential this group has. At its center is the tinkering of Kidd, and adjustments from Monroe, Parker and Antetokounmpo.
Kidd knows that the wing trio of Middleton, Parker and Antetokounmpo needs to work together long-term. They’re all young, talented and with complementary skill sets — Giannis as the long defensive stopper and slasher, Middleton as the spot-up shooter, and Parker as the guy who gets the hard buckets and draws double-teams. Putting the best possible point guard and a center around them has been the difficult part, but Kidd might have finally cracked it by punting the issue altogether.
On February 9, the Bucks rolled out a starting lineup of O.J. Mayo, Middleton, Parker, Antetokounmpo and Miles Plumlee, benching MCW and Monroe. By adding an extra shooting guard, Kidd made Giannis a nightmare of a 6’11 point guard, and by replacing a dominant low-post scorer with a simple pick-setter and dunker, he gave Parker space to work. It’s also created one of the strangest, most creative rotations in the NBA.
In the eight games since Kidd has made the switch, Giannis is averaging 16.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and six assists, and he’s had two triple-doubles. Because he’s nominally playing power forward, but is really running point, he’s a complete nightmare on the fast break, running past whoever’s normally supposed to guard him and creating mismatches all over the floor. The Houston Rockets are one of the worst fast-break defenses in the NBA, but look at what Giannis did to them on Monday night:
People may have wanted Giannis to become a better long-range shooter to fulfill the Kevin Durant dreams, but that’s not his destiny. He’s made huge strides as a passer, and from his position, his shooting issues aren’t as big of a problem (he’s still awful from the outside, but he’s also just barely 21). And of course, it helps that his running mate in both of those plays was Jabari.
In the same eight-game timeframe, Parker’s averaging more than 20 points and seven rebounds on 53 percent shooting. Part of that can be attributed to him finally finding his jump shot after his long injury recovery, but another is undoubtedly the extra space afforded by Monroe’s absence. Within five feet of the basket this season, Parker is shooting 11 percentage points better with Monroe off the floor than on. He’s still not there defensively (not even close), but a 20-point scorer who can’t defend is much more playable than the 12-point scorer who can’t defend Jabari was before the switch.
But how can two players whose shots don’t extend much past the elbows coexist together offensively? With the added spacing of shooting threats like Mayo and Jerryd Bayless to go along with Middleton, who’s still the unsung hero of this team. Khris is still an above-average defender, he’s still shooting 40 percent from three, and he’s underrated as a drive-and-kick distributor, averaging a hearty four assists per game. Without Middleton, this would still be a set of interesting-but-mismatched players.
But back to the changes, and the man on whom they’re the hardest — Monroe. When a marquee free agent is coming off the bench just two-thirds of a season into his contract, even if he’s still getting sizable minutes and touches, something’s probably gone wrong. Many, many players in the NBA would take that kind of treatment as a slight and complain or sulk, but not Moose. Here’s what he said of his benching:
“My minutes haven’t changed; my numbers are basically the same since the change. With me, it’s always been when I’m on the court just trying to be as productive as possible. Most people expect me to start, but this is something that is for the better of the team.
“There are a lot of things that tie into it. Everything is to help the team.”
You simply can’t ask for a better teammate. Monroe buying into Kidd’s decision was every bit as important as the decision itself. Even if he shares the court for stretches with the starters (and he has and will continue to do so), the rhythm of the game has changed for the better. What’s more, Monroe’s post game will be even more effective against reserve units with worse big men and looser rotations.
For all of Monroe’s talent, he’s not the most willing screener, preferring to wait for his low-post touches. When he does screen, he’s not enough of a threat to dunk on the roll to draw the kind of help that opens up space for the ball-handler. Even though Plumlee is a limited player, he knows his job is to set screens all over. That has opened things up for Giannis and Parker almost as much as the shooters on the perimeter.
That’s what makes the rumors surrounding the Bucks’ pursuit of Dwight Howard all the more fascinating. Apparently, they were ready to deal for him, but wanted him to commit long-term before he hit free agency, which he was unwilling to do. The last two major deals Kidd has made — for MCW and Monroe — haven’t worked out as planned, so would this one have gone the same?
It’s honestly hard to say. Like Monroe, Dwight demands a certain amount of low-post touches, but he’s better at screening and much better at finishing as the roll man. He’s also still a very good-to-great defender, whereas Monroe is a poor one. On paper, it’s hard to believe the trade-off would be negative. Dwight even made a point to say that he likes Milwaukee, opening up the possibility that he’d be amenable to come to the Bucks in free agency. The Bucks wouldn’t have to work too hard to sign him to the maximum contract he’s demanding — they’d have to let some reserves walk and wait on extensions to Giannis and Jabari — but it would also represent an unprecedented level of spending for the team.
Of course, bringing in Dwight would further reduce Monroe’s minutes and standing on the team, considering a Monroe-Howard front line might be unplayable. But Monroe’s got an opt-out clause after next season, and he could possibly be traded to clear space for Dwight plus another talent.
All that is wild speculation of course, but it’s the good kind. The optimism that characterized last season in Milwaukee is back, and though it may be too late to make the playoffs this season, the Bucks are no longer a bunch of talented players with no clear way of putting them together. Finally, there’s a way forward.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com